If I Were Preaching, Lent 2A, Reflectionary

Look Up (Lent 2)

“Look up,” my wife says to our 15-year-old when he can’t get his nose out of YouTube videos, but some days we need to say it to ourselves and each other as well. Look up from your phone and see the natural world, the people around you, or the chores that need to be done right now. 

This past Sunday I turned off my Twitter notifications and gave myself a break. It might seem strange to consider this a form of looking up, since I’ve been conscientious for half a dozen years about curating a feed that brings me varied viewpoints about the news and the world. But I needed to mute collective anxiety for a minute and pay attention to something else. Instead of falling down the rabbit hole of Twitter replies, I needed to look up.  

Looking up was key in the heroic life of Harriet Tubman. Her father taught her to look for the North star, a great skill for developing a sense of direction that would be life-saving for her and for the enslaved people she would liberate as a conductor on the Underground Railroad.* Looking up and finding the star gave her literal direction, a way to find a route by night, but it also represented her faith that God would make a way out of what seemed like no way to escape.

Nicodemus made his way to Jesus in the night because he feared showing his curiosity in public. Maybe he had too much to lose, or wanted to protect those who depended on him. It’s clear from their conversation in John 3 that he has only a partial understanding of what Jesus is doing and who Jesus is. My friend Mary Beth uses the email signature “John 3:17 – Look it up!” as a counter against exclusionary interpretations of John 3:16, and I have unpacked the contrast in past sermons. But if I were preaching this week, I would be paying attention to the rest of the passage, particularly this.

“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” 

John 3:11-12

Look up! 

“I lift up my eyes to the hills– from where will my help come?” (Psalm 121:1) We know better than to literalize this poetic expression, and yet there have been so many things that I needed to look up to see!

Look up from your phone, your work, and your singular point of view. Look up from your fears, your  preferences, and your prejudices. Look up – for a wider view, a broader perspective, a more dimensional prospect of what God wants you, wants us, to do and be. 

I’ve been reading about Harriet Tubman this week in two different books, both wonderfully accessible: Daneen Akers’ Holy Troublemakers & Unconventional Saints and Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman

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If I Were Preaching, Lent 1A, Reflectionary

For Lent, look inside

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Genesis 3:4-5, First Sunday in Lent

“You were a little weak on evil,” said the older pastor good-naturedly, as if the intellectual exercise were paramount. Behind the closed doors of the chapel at my home church, dozens of delegates, both lay and clergy, were discussing my ordination paper. We stood near tables laden with refreshments for the reception planned with hope of a favorable outcome. “Weak on evil,” he repeated, “and a little soft on sin.” 

I had been feeling pretty good about my paper, in which I quoted a seminary professor who said, “Sin is anything that gets in the way of our relationship with God.” I wrote it down word for word when I heard it in class, and I typed it up later, so I wouldn’t lose it. 

Was I soft on sin? Or hopeful about the potential for goodness in God’s creation? I preferred the latter interpretation. 

Despite all this, I was approved that day and ordained a few months later. (Pictured after my ordination on 10/6/02, with my kids, in the same space at Woodfords Congregational UCC in Portland, Maine.)

Unfortunately, the ensuing years have shown me that my professor’s assertion assumes we will be able to see ourselves honestly enough to recognize disruption in our relationship with God. Since then, I have seen too many news stories and exposés recounting the abusive behavior of faith leaders who preached one way and lived another, unable or unwilling to see the contradiction between their teaching and their living. Take into account leaders in other fields who call themselves followers of Jesus, and add on professionals who carry authority over others, even parents and guardians, and we can see the picture clearly. This sin, this evil, is not a stunning exception. 

I can see how soft I was on sin, that of others, and my own. Have I swung over too far? Today my distress over the world may have made me too partial to total depravity. 

Even so, I don’t want to be the preacher who condemns others; Jesus certainly told us to beware of critiquing the splinter in someone else’s eye when there is a log in our own. From a homiletic perspective, it’s probably more effective to talk about temptation when engaging the texts from Genesis and Matthew this week. Even the temptation to gain something we might otherwise view as positive – knowledge – risks a behavior – disobedience – that pushes us over the boundary into sin. Here’s where I get tangled up. I go down the side paths, wondering “What is our view of disobedience?” My subjective view – does it count as disobedience if the rule is nonsensical or, worse, prejudiced or hateful? – may not be trustworthy and certainly emphasizes a suspicion of worldly systems over an emphasis on relationship with God. 

On this Sunday when people will be comparing notes (or avoiding conversations) about what they are planning to give up for Lent, we could propose a season of conscious self-evaluation. We could take on a purposeful examen. What is my motivation for the choice I am making, whether it is for action or inaction? What are the ramifications of the actions I take? How might the outcome impact me, and others, and the world? And where do I experience God as I examine my actions? 

Look inside, and try to be clear with yourself. Look inside, and ask:

  • Why am I doing this? 
  • What is the potential impact?
  • Who is influencing me?
  • Will my action or decision exhibit love for God, neighbor, and self?

For Lent, let’s look inside.

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If I Were Preaching, Reflectionary

What did she do?

I started telling the story because the scripture read at a Presbyterian Women Circle meeting reminded me of a woman in the first congregation I served. Vi was sitting in church and heard these words as if she had never heard them before:

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 

Matthew 4:23-24

On that day, those verses seemed to be written for Vi, and about her disagreement with another women who belonged to that church, who was sitting just a few rows away. I got that far, and then I went in another direction, because my point was about how we sometimes hear the words, even the words we know, in a way that is astonishingly personal. 

Then one of the Presbyterian women pulled me back, asking earnestly, “What did she do?” 

The question felt poignant. I let whatever my other point might have been drop; I could see that everyone around the table wondered. In any community of faith there are disagreements, squabbles, resentments, just as there are in any other human system. I wondered who these women were mad at, or who they feared might still be mad at them? 

In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul addresses some kind of contention in the young church. Followers who claim him are at odds with the followers of Apollos. Paul reminds them that both he and Apollos are working on behalf of God, and all the credit for growth of the community, whether spiritual or numerical, belongs to God. Stop fussing with each other, he says. Stop being so human in your priorities. 

I would argue that’s very easy to say from a distance. We who live in day-to-day, week-in-week-out church community know that it’s not enough to say, “Just stop it!” Like the woman from my first congregation, like the ladies at PW, we know that where there is conflict, we need to work through it, even if doing so feels daunting to contemplate. 

So, what did she do? Vi took Jesus at his word and went to the woman with whom she had a conflict. She apologized for her part in their disagreement. She worked for reconciliation. She told me this not proudly, but with humility, recognizing that the fault was not all on one side. 

We cannot live together well in community unless we can collaborate – unless we can co-labor. It’s another way of saying we are all in this together. Co-laboring is the work of being community. We can do it for other reasons; community doesn’t have to be explicitly Christian, of course, but how can we follow Christ without prioritizing it? Love your neighbor as yourself, Jesus told us. Forgive 70 times 7. Sort things out with your siblings, your co-laborers. As Paul points out, it takes spiritual maturity to do this, something Vi had worked to gain, the experience of self-examination that allows us to admit it when we are in the wrong, and give thanks when we reach an understanding. 

While these texts certainly have broader implications for how we relate across ecumenical and interfaith boundaries, if I were preaching I would lift up that that the work begins at a personal level. It’s too easy to project the fractures in our personal relationships onto people farther away and just ignore the ones we might actually have some power to heal. 

What did Vi do? She took a risk, and she re-formed a relationship that had been broken. Jesus planted the word, and Paul watered it, and a teacher taught it to her in her youth; finally some pastor read it at the moment she could hear it, and then years later, she brought it to me, for we are God’s servants, working together.

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